Deniability

by Paul Niquette
Adapted  from 101 Words I Don't Use 
Copyright 1996 Resource Books All rights reserved.
deniability n. Plausible disavowal, often pre-arranged; claim of an authority not to have authorized a subordinate's act, whether ill advised, illegal, or immoral.
As always, if you or any members of the IMF team are captured or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions. 
Good luck, Jim!
-- From the opening of TV's Mission Impossible
ThinkerAn official of government secretly authorizes an illegal action that, if publicly known, would meet with condemnation.  One might assume that, in his or her mind, the ends justify the means.  Success accrues credit for the official and assures tolerance of the means.  Failure means blame for the official and risks censure for the means.
 Unless the official has deniability.
Thus, in pursuit of an arguably worthwhile purpose might a head-of-state secretly contradict establish policies, transgress a treaty, violate international law, carry out missions of sabotage or terror -- even strategic assassination.

Somebody -- preferably a willing subordinate -- must be prepared to take the blame.  Who?  What will be the story?  Best to have all that worked out in advance.  For we have reason to believe there is no such thing as permanent covertness.  If, as the saying goes, "nature abhors a vacuum," history abhors a secret.

The subject at hand is "responsibility" -- more precisely "hierarchical accountability."  For the person in charge, there can be no escaping it.

  • Asleep in his quarters, the captain is nonetheless held accountable should the ship at that time run aground.
  • The bank president, even while vacationing, must answer for what each teller does.
There are self-evident reasons for running things this way.  To do otherwise leads to disorder, chaos -- not to mention mischief.  Without accountability, there can be no sure way to detect the misguided policy.  Without accountability, nothing sets limits on the exercise of authority, the use of power, the abuse of power.  Yet even the word "accountability" has become pejorated by expressions that feature the word "blame," which seems to bring shame more to the blamer than the blamee.

So, then, what rational argument can be made for the doctrine of deniability, which undeniably destroys accountability?  Why even have the word?

  • Escape culpability by being elsewhere and the word "alibi" would apply.
  • Try exculpation through ignorance (or forgetfulness) and the word "excuse" has its use.
Neither word wins respect; both destroy accountability, demolish responsibility.  Ah yes, but just as the word "lie" -- the verb -- gave way to "dissemble" during the 1970s and "lie" -- the noun -- became "disinformation" in the 1980s, so perhaps "deniability" came into being as a euphemism for a venerable iniquity by some other name.  If the term has a harsher synonym, I would nominate the expression "premeditated cover-up."

My guess is that the practice of deniability arose first as a doctrine invented by a loathsome totalitarian regime.  The concept, all dressed up in its official-sounding name, found favor among this country's secret agents.  Whereas spying (passive mode) demands utmost secrecy, covert plotting (active mode) calls for plenty of that plus plausible deniability, or so it seems.  Spooky enough, had it remained in the dark bowels of the "intelligence community," but as we know, neither the word nor the doctrine stayed there.

To some benighted souls, deniability may have a philosophical resemblance to loyalty: something to be rendered to -- not appropriated by -- a higher level official.  Not so much that the buck trickles down, but that it is pocketed on the way up.

Cynics assert the proposition that nations have no morals, only interests.  The words roll nicely off the tongue, but beware, people of good will!  Glibness can disguise a barren thought.  Be vigilant for wrong-headed sentiments.  That a country is compelled to adopt the methods of its adversaries in order to resist them is an insidious myth.  Besides, if "government by the people" is more than a slogan, citizens must occasionally ask themselves, "What kind of a country do we-the-people want here anyway?"

Secrecy and covert activities may be nasty realities -- but deniable covert activities?  I think the hell not.

ThinkerHere's a challenge: Hypothesize any covert activity for a thought experiment. I can think of only three categories to choose from: (1) paramilitary operations, (2) psychological warfare, and (3) political manipulation.  Ugh!  Tell you the truth, I don't much care for any of them.  Anyway, take the secret mining of a harbor to stop suspected weapons shipments, for example.  Or sponsoring the rebel invasion of a country with a despised governmental ideology.  You might prefer to think up your own secret plot such as fomenting a civil war, bombing a guerrilla sanctuary in a neutral country, or plotting the assassination of a rival.

Now, ask yourself, would you and most of the people you know vote for it as a referendum?  Let's suppose the answer is "yes" (we shall return to "no" later).  Well, then, your proposed covert activity is simply not a case in point.  No reason to hoke up deniability for that scheme, whatever it is.  Whoever authorizes the plan has nothing to be ashamed of, little to fear from public disclosure later on.

Caution is advised, though.  Do you really want your government engaging in terrorist acts or adopting a concealed policy that would approve the murder of a foreign head-of-state?  Think of the horrendous risks associated with disclosure of your country's involvement, denied or not.  Even unrevealed, the unintended consequences are bound to be perilous.  The cure may be worse than the disease.  One dead dictator won't necessarily mean the end to oppression.  The successor, if not meaner by nature, may nevertheless have a ready-made pretext for imposing more brutal measures.  This whole business gives me the shivers.

Accordingly, your thoughtful answer might have to be "no" -- you and your friends would not favor the covert activity under consideration.  The project is too dangerous, and besides it is not the kind of thing you want your fellow countrymen to be known for.

Before abandoning the proposed plan, let us ask a second -- crucial -- question: Would you judge this despicable covert activity to be vital for the security of the country?  Not an expedient, not merely beneficial to national interests -- vital.  Let's take the answer "no" first this time.  If your answer is "no," the essentiality of the covert activity in question is in question.  Whoever is in charge must not approve the scheme, period.

Suppose, finally, that in your best judgement the answer is "yes" -- the deed's gotta be done.  Bad faith it might be, but in good faith, you can say there is no better way.  In my book, that means an official policy of war, not peacetime high jinks.  But even as an alternative to war, deniability is wrong.  Why not, then, demand of our leaders as follows: Steel yourself to the ineluctable revelations of history and proceed in secret.  Keep the chain of authority intact.  That's leadership.  Lament it when the time comes, but don't disavow it!  That's chickenship.

Excuse me for cursing the darkness; however, deniability has to be one of the most wicked ideas in the world.  Alas, an evil doctrine surely will not go away simply because one person despises the word concocted to describe it.
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